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Tom Waits Wears His Mask Like a Pro

Effective but Defective

Tom Waits, who has just become the first major artist to release two new albums simultaneously since Bruce Springsteen back in mesozoic 1992, is a rock professional for the new century. After 30 years on the "margins," he is perfectly positioned to thrive in a business environment now downsizing all rock and rollers of a certain age. Really, why else do you think Don Henley and Tom Petty are so het up about artists' rights? Sure they have honorable reasons too; sure the owners are even greedier than they are. But mainly they can't shake the gut feeling that their slipping sales are against nature. Waits is no share-the-wealther--one of the few artists who controls his own publishing, he recently built on the cool two million he won when he caught Frito-Lay stealing his shtick in 1993 by joining Randy Newman and others in a $40 million suit against But the charts were never where he made his mark. Thus he was also the first big name to juice his mechanical royalties by jumping ship to a minor label, and remains the most prestigious, although I hear Henley has been making goo-goo eyes at Kill Rock Stars. Waits also has a career as an actor. He's forged more alliances with the institutionalized avant-garde than David Byrne. And while he's damn well in the authenticity business, he's not in the confessional authenticity business, which has turned into a tough line of work for rock artistes who'll never see 50 again.

Take, for instance, Are You Passionate? and Goddess in the Doorway, the recent stiffs by Neil Young (b. 1945) and Mick Jagger (b. 1943). Nobody thinks these guys are fonts of unmediated emotion--Jagger has always made irony his calling card, and Young regularly indulges a penchant for untraceable imaginings. Nevertheless, they do pretend that some way or other they're expressing themselves. So when they describe feeling alienated from their kids, which both do on these albums, we connect that to what we know about their biographies, just like when they bewail their romantic woes. One reason I prefer Young's album is that there the love songs could be about a rocky marriage, whereas Jagger sounds like he's on some fresh pussy, as biography suggests he probably is. Yet the fresh pussy audience, bless its turned-up nose, has declined to scarf down his expensive new hooks. As for scarfing down either geezer's alienation from his kids, only a very empathetic young person would bother. And young people still dominate the CD market.

On Alice and Blood Money and everywhere else, Waits (b. 1949) avoids these problems. Not that love songs like "Alice" don't evoke the great Kathleen Brennan, the wife and collaborator who picked his music up a notch as of Swordfishtrombones 20 years ago. But his persona never has been first-person. Listen to the 16 selections on Rhino's Asylum-era anthology Used Songs and tell me where you hear a young man expressing himself. Maybe on "Ol' '55," a car song so lyrical it gets covered by Sarah McLachlan, or maybe maybe on "The Heart of Saturday Night," its locale a cruise strip and the joints that line it. But that one's second-person, and "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis" isn't. Already he's a tale spinner, a chronicler of low-life observed and low-life stitched together from whole cloth. Maybe once he was unspoiled enough to feel holy on the freeways, but the voice that dominates Used Songs belongs to the huckster who raps out come-ons over the jazz-trio jive of "Step Right Up": "It's effective, it's defective/It creates household odors/It disinfects, it sanitizes for your protection/It gives you an erection/It wins the election/Why put up with painful corns any longer?" Waits earns all those carnival-barker comparisons. He stations himself outside the freak show, cynical and sentimental and funny as shit.

Even as what my Yeats prof used to call a mask, however, it's been a while since any such characterization was classy enough for Tom Waits. His mask is a front. Waits demonstrates no interest in exploring the barker as a character, or the reasons an artist might put the mask on. It's just a way for him to presume an artist's objectivity and cultural prerogatives; his real persona--or maybe I mean something broader, like "image"--is of someone who creates fictions in a carny's voice. If this sounds hostile, I'm sorry. I think Waits is a first-rate songwriter and a one-of-a-kind performer, and I also think he's fun. But he does get a bit of a free ride, doesn't he?

Yes, his gifts are major and unconventional. He's a visionary bandleader who got a crude solidity out of obscure rock and name jazz studio cats before hitting on the Partch-Weill weirdness he's been permuting since Brennan arrived. He savors the color and concreteness of Americanese and the sound of folks who like to hear themselves talk. He gives the sense that he knows more than he's telling about the people and events he sketches. His rare live shows are funnier than shit. Mix in his anti-establishment bona fides and his freedom from self-expression and Waits can do no wrong. What exactly he has to say, or even how well he says it, is subsumed in his legendary integrity and idiosyncrasy.

So three years after his long-awaited Mule Variations, here come two more Waits albums on Epitaph's Anti- imprint. Absent the copyright notices--which reveal that all the songs on Alice date to 1992 and all those on Blood Money to 2000, with every blasted one co-written by Brennan--nothing in the packaging indicates that both albums consist of songs written to order for separate Robert Wilson productions derived from wacked-out pedophile-cum-fantast Lewis Carroll and tortured absurdist-realist Georg Büchner, respectively. The connections are duly noted in the publicity packet, and the reviews invariably mention them. Seldom is it hinted, however, that this is a lousy way to make albums. Theater pieces are visual, CDs are not; theater pieces assume live performance in multiple voices, CDs do not; theater pieces have plots even when they're by Robert Wilson, CDs do not. A song that might work onstage as a mood enhancer or narrative bridge or change of pace turns into filler on an album, as do contract songs forced out on deadline that you never actually intended your public to hear only your public is so fanatical it bootlegged them.

Not counting the bootlegs, which happened with Alice, that last sentence is guesswork. Waits has been slipping forgettable tracks onto his albums since Closing Time in 1973--he doesn't need a rationalization. But rearranged and reselected though the material may be, both these records are seriously delimited by their sources. Maybe the two consecutive deformity songs, double-faced boy followed by man who's all hands, make sense in Alice's theatrical wonderland, but they're at least one too many here, and Blood Money's four bellows of misanthropic despair--with the gloriously self-explanatory titles "Misery Is the River of the World," "Everything Goes to Hell," "God's Away on Business," and "Starving in the Belly of a Whale"--are also overkill. Both records flatten during what are either time-marking interludes or duff songs. Though their sharpest kick is in the arrangements, which on Blood Money add Waits's latest musicological discovery, the horn-equipped Stroh violin, to his traditional g-b-d-chamberlain-pod-crankshaft-etc. ensemble, the scattered instrumentals don't parse structurally. As for Waits's singing on vehicles originally conceived for more accomplished, less distinctive vocalists, well, his partisans claim his tuneless groan is a treasurehouse of nuance, and sometimes it is, but I gotta say--one time the Jagger record came on after Alice and I caught myself breathing a sigh of relief.

None of which matters a tittle, because Waits has the bases covered. He's a genius; when he doesn't make masterpieces, he comes close. Making a show of analytic distinction, most of the reviewers who've raved about these albums slightly prefer the slower, sweeter Alice, which proves I'm not a Waits partisan--to me the tough-guy corn of his lugubrious-lyrical mode seems too squishy by half, and if "Alice" with its ice-skating figure or "Fish and Bird" with its Dr. Dolittle Romeo-and-Juliet makes some future compilation on the pull of its melody, I'll nod hello and go talk to somebody I like. Blood Money is a more consistent record, albeit unbalanced by arbitrary thematic commitments. "Lullaby" goes someplace new with its quiet "If I die before you wake/Don't you cry; don't you weep," and the perfidy-of-woman fable "Another Man's Vine" approaches tragedy by rejecting contempt. But rather than building off each other, the four life-sucks songs, only "Everything Goes to Hell" less than inspired, protest too much without sufficient compensation from the tentative attempted hit "Coney Island Baby" or "All the World Is Green," a save-our-marriage plea more tender and doomed than any Neil Young currently has on sale.

It wasn't like this on Mule Variations, where the dullest material fit a concept that injected domesticated blues into Waits's outsider act--his best album, in no determinable way confessional, but perhaps reflective of his day-to-day emotional circumstances. More often, his songwriting falls back on older and, for him, easier tropes--the rant, the sideshow, the sad-sack moan. Maybe the reason his bandleading stands out so is that, for all his joy in language, it best articulates his deepest compulsion, which is to reject a corrupt present without wallowing in a romanticized past. He forges into the future on old instruments nobody's ever heard of because they were rejects, just like the losers and monsters whose stories he tells. This is honorable, difficult work. It's no disgrace that he fails to bring it off more often than anyone's willing to admit.

Village Voice, Jul. 9, 2002